I live out in Real Virginia, which is to say the part of Virginia that is technically a D.C. exurb, but is populated almost entirely by normal people. My neighbors are teachers and plumbers and soldiers and engineers. Plenty of the folks out here work for the federal government, but none of them work in politics. We have no lobbyists and on the odd occasions when I meet a lawyer‑-in my neighborhood, lawyers exist in the same population ratio you'd expect in vivo--the lawyer actually practices law. There are no--zero--journalists in my neck of the woods. For all I know, I might be the only one in the county.
In fact, it's a sign of how big-hearted and good-natured these people are that they view me more as a curiosity than a contamination.
Anyway, last Friday I bumped into a fellow named John (not his real name). I've known him for six years and we are, if not bosom friends, then very good acquaintances. John asked me what I thought about the GOP debate. I demurred, as I usually do in such circumstances, and instead took it as an opportunity to ask about his politics and his political journey. And what I learned fascinated me.
I should start by saying that John is a fine, impressive man. He's in his mid-60s. He and his wife own and run a successful small business. They have a bunch of kids, all of whom are grown up and have turned out to be upstanding adults, too, with jobs and families of their own. John is kind and smart and hardworking. He is not a crank or a naïf. And here is the gist of what John told me:
John said that, growing up in Massachusetts when he did, his parents were staunch Democrats and very liberal. But during the '80s, John became a Reagan Democrat, much to their consternation. He liked Reagan a great deal, and thought he was a great president.
But after Reagan, he began to drift back toward the Democrats, not because he liked them, but because he was repelled by the first Bush, and then, much more strongly, by the second Bush. He did not like George W. Bush, at all.
And then came Obama. John voted for Obama in 2008 more or less guided by hope. He didn't know quite what to expect, but thought it was important to have an African-American president and hoped that the young senator might be a good one.
So far, so good, right? This is a story that we've all heard before and one that makes a great deal of sense, whether or not you share John’s politics.
But then John started pitching me curveballs. He had voted for Obama in 2008 because of a vague sense of hope, yes. But in 2012, he voted for Obama with real, genuine enthusiasm.
Already, this is off-script. Obama lost almost 4 million votes from 2008 to 2012--how many voters were more enthusiastic about him the second time around? At least one, it turns out. I asked John what made him so enthused about Obama’s reelection. He told me there were two things. (1) Obama had demonstrated that he had no interest in partisan politics and had readily worked with Republicans throughout his first term. (2) Obama had enacted a full economic recovery in just four years--an amazing, Reagan-like accomplishment.
At this point I was a little agog. Because John's reading of Obama's first term wasn't just counter to what I'd argue was the accurate reading of it--it was even counter to the Obama '12 campaign's narrative. If you took the Obama 2012 pitch at face value, it was something like this: "Republican extremists have refused to work with me. We Democrats have to band together against them. And you have to be patient about the economic recovery; it's coming."
In other words, John wasn’t just the rare voter who had gotten more enthusiastic about Obama, he had gotten more enthusiastic about him without absorbing any of the Obama campaign's arguments and themes.
And here's where John really surprised me: He told me that he was so moved by Obama, that Obama was the first man he had ever voted for for president. Confused, I asked, about his years as a Reagan Democrat. To which he responded that while he had admired Reagan, he had never actually voted for him, or indeed in any presidential election prior to 2008.
Again, let me reiterate: John is nobody’s fool. He's an intelligent, hard-working man who does things in his professional life that I could never do--like, for instance, run a business that provides a living for a dozen people. I have nothing but affection and respect for him. But his reading of politics is so far away from objective facts that it isn’t even wrong. It’s just out there.